As you can see from the top left corner of this blog, the kind and gracious hostess at Divine Mercy has awarded me her Candle Award for December. I so much appreciate the faithful witness, bright spirit, and generous good nature Marilena displays on a daily basis!
I was actually thinking about candles in context with something else, and this award gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss it.
I recently participated in a discussion on another blog where the topic of conversation involved the TLM and the Novus Ordo Mass. Although regular readers of this blog will know that I generally prefer the Novus Ordo, I would love to be able to attend the N.O. in Latin on a regular basis; at the very least the vernacular liturgy should strive toward the same dignity and reverence that is visible in the TLM, in my opinion.
You would think that the notion of reverence and dignity in the liturgy would not cause any contention among Catholics, but you'd be wrong. There's nothing like expressing an opinion, however mildly, that there really is a "right" and a "wrong" approach to liturgy to bring out the hostility among a segment of Catholics who seem to think that any such idea is not only in direct opposition to the spirit of Vatican II, but who find it characteristic of a snobby approach to worship, a presumptuous attitude that claims to know what God really wants of us, and an altogether uncharitable view that doesn't really care if Latin hymns and incense drive out not only the prevailing populist liturgical culture, but also all of those Catholics who would feel hurt and excluded by a too-strong return to liturgical tradition.
All of that old art, architecture, music, etc., was fine for its time, some of them are wont to say, but modern times demand modern innovations. We don't want the Church to stagnate, or to create the false impression that it takes Catholics five hundred years to decide if new things are good and worthy of being included in our sacred liturgies. To place such restrictions on modernity is indicative of a suspicious prejudice against what is new, a prejudice that does the Church no favors, and makes it much harder for people, especially young people, to connect with faith and worship.
I've discovered that trying to argue this issue on the basis of the importance of what liturgy is, what worship is, how we need to be connected with the Church's rich history and traditions, and so on, doesn't seem to do all that much. And that's when I started thinking about candles.
We use candles at Mass to represent Christ, our Light. Despite the fact that the modern age permits us to use a safer, easier, and much more effective means of illumination, we still use candles. No one ever suggests that the electric lights in the Church are an adequate replacement for the candles; no one (at least not that I know of) has ever seriously suggested replacing the Easter candle with a good quality flashlight, or an electric light post. At infant baptisms the parents and godparents are still handed a candle as part of the ritual, though there's plenty of light overhead and the candle is wholly useless from a practical standpoint; we light candles in churches (unless local fire codes prohibit this) when we pray for the poor souls or ask for help in some area of our life, even though the notion that the candle somehow affects the prayer is not at all what we believe. At the Easter Vigil Mass candles take over the whole job of lighting for a brief time, though the electric lights still function properly; there are rules governing the use and lighting of candles at Mass, and no properly educated Catholic priest allows a "unity candle" to be used at a wedding ceremony, because the symbolism of the candle doesn't permit such a usage.
Are candles really relevant to our modern lives? Aren't they, really, just a stubborn clinging to an ancient and meaningless tradition, considering all of the talk about seeing Christ in the assembly, in each other? Don't candles really hearken back to old dead ritual, considering that there's no use for them at all in the modern world? Shouldn't we replace the candles with a more relevant and up-to-date source of lighting? In fact, haven't we? After all, no one even buys candles any more, do they?
Why do modern people, even outside of the Mass, still use these antiquated and outmoded things? Why do so many people purchase them annually, either for themselves or to give as gifts? Haven't we moved past all of our tendencies to cling to tradition? What possible reason could a modern person in a modern home have to buy or use a candle?
There are lots of reasons, of course, ranging from aromatherapy and home decoration to keeping emergency supplies on hand, with every degree of romance and practicality in between. But merely to state such things is to beg the question, or at least the deeper question: why do we associate candles with things like nice homes, romantic interludes, and even emergency preparedness, when candles are no longer strictly necessary for any of those things?
I have a feeling it's because at least at some level we still associate fire and light. The incandescent bulb, or the fluorescent one, good in themselves, have not been around long enough for us to associate with them such things as safety, warmth, passion, coziness, cheer or welcome. We may not consciously think of these things when we light a candle to set a mood or create a pleasant atmosphere, but the reason we choose to do that in itself shows how deeply we connect the "ritual" act of lighting a candle with these desired results.
At Mass, the profane "ritual" of lighting a candle for mundane or earthly use becomes the sacred ritual of lighting candles in anticipation of Christ's Real Presence on the altar; the earthly associations we draw around the use of a candle are transcended and given a sacramental quality, as something ancient and lasting becomes inextricably bound up with something eternal.
And if this is true for something as simple as a candle, how much more is it true for the cadence of ancient words, the soft rhythm of ancient music, the soaring majesty of ancient and venerable cathedrals, the glittering gems of ancient stained glass, and the whole rich patrimony of our ancient liturgical heritage?